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Portsmouth Artist Shines A Light On Women In Aerospace History

A painting of 13 astronauts sitting in a row. Their faces are not seen, and the color of their space suits are blue and grey in front of a black background.
Jennifer Benn
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Jennifer Benn's painting, "Mercury XIII" depicts the 13 female pilots who passed astronaut screening tests, but were not allowed to join NASA's space program as women in the 1960s.

Artist Jennifer Benn’s painting, “Mercury XIII” is an homage to 13 women who could have been America’s first women astronauts in the 1960s.

 The “Invented Futures” exhibit at the Lamont Gallery in Exeter celebrates “space art,” a genre of visual art in which artists explore the wonders of outer space.

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Portsmouth-based artist Jennifer Benn worked on the research for the exhibit and her paintings are featured in the gallery. Her focus is on overlooked women in aerospace history.

She joined NHPR’s Morning Edition host, Rick Ganley, to discuss the history behind her artwork.

Transcript:

Rick Ganley: For people who may be unfamiliar, can you explain the visual style and the artistic intentions in space art?

Jennifer Benn: Ok, well, the space show we have up now at at the Lamont Gallery at Phillips Exeter is mainly focused on Chesley Bonestell, who was a very important artist in the 1950s, basically an illustrator and architect actually, who helped to basically bring the idea of space to the public in a way that they could understand.

Rick Ganley: Yeah, I feel like, you know, his work when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s was really impressionistic. I think that, you know, when we think of where we're going in space or what could be in space, I think his art is what we thought of.

Jennifer Benn: Oh, definitely. I think he was very prescient. And again, his technique of painting was a photographic realism, and I think that really helped sell the program as “This is possible because I can see it right there.” He was guessing about a lot of it, but a lot of it is very precise and worked with Wernher von Braun and other important scientists to create these images and help sell the program.

A desert landscape in the foreground and Saturn looming in the background
From the collection of Jay Whipple
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Chesley Bonestell, Saturn Viewed from Mimas, 1944, Oil on panel

Rick Ganley: One of your paintings included in the exhibit depicts the Mercury 13. Can you give us a little bit of the history of the Mercury 13?

Jennifer Benn: It's a story that I think a lot of people haven't heard. Mercury 7 are all the famous first astronauts that everyone knows, John Glenn and New Hampshire's Alan Shepard. And the doctor that was actually testing them because they didn't know how people would react to space at that time was named Randy Lovelace. And he actually thought to himself, "I wonder how women would do in these tests." The same tests had given the men the G-force test, physical test and mental tests, et cetera, and invited experienced women pilots to come take the tests.

Basically, they weaned it down to 13 really talented, experienced, qualified women with world records for flying. And they put them through the same tests. And the women actually did really well, like a lot of them, when actually did better than the men and some of the testing, especially the sensory deprivation testing.

And one of the women, Janey Hart, her husband, was a senator, so they basically went to the committee in Washington, D.C., to present their information that, "Here we go. Here's the testing results from the same doctor, Randy Lovelace, on how women did. And we'd like you to consider allowing some of these women to be in the space program."

And sadly, they were basically shut down even though they had helped out during World War II, flying military planes when they were allowed to. And again, a lot of them had even flown experimental planes. They did not have the military jet pilot experience because women weren't allowed to be military jet pilots. So they basically said nope. And I do remember, I think it was John Glenn actually, was at the hearing, and he said, "It's not women's role at this time to be astronauts."

It's come back out in the news very recently because Wally Funk was one of the Mercury 13, and she was the special guest star in Jeff Bezos flight into space recently. So it's really amazing, and I'm so happy that one of the Mercury 13 actually did get to go up into, you know, into the atmosphere.

Rick Ganley: You wrote a quote from Janey Hart, one of the thirteen on the Mercury 13 painting that the quote reads, "I'm not arguing that women be admitted to space merely so that they won't feel discriminated against. I'm arguing that they be admitted because they have a very real contribution to make."

Jennifer Benn: Yeah, I think that's a really great, calm statement. And the good news is that half the program now is often female, and that a year later, after they were shut down at the Senate, Valentina Tereshkova went to space. So, you know, all the arguments against women are proven moot by her three day rotation of the Earth, basically doing more time and space than all the American astronauts had combined.

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